What is appropriation, & when does it cross the line into plagiarism?
Also, is it different to do this with a living writer’s work v. a dead writer’s work?
I’ve been having this conversation A LOT lately, with a wide range of writers with a crazy amount of variation in answer. Oddly enough, one of the most conservative/traditional writers I know is totally ok with appropriation that is practically plagiarism, whereas some of the most least conservative/traditional writers have been arguing against it. Those of you who know my more recent writing know I’m all about appropriation, but when does it “cross the line”? I find myself increasingly conservative on this issue. Hmm…
13 thoughts on “Appropriate Appropriation?”
Have you read Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism”? He makes some good arguments, and then at the end cites where he lifted all of his points from. Pretty clever. For me the irony of my paintings is that the writing is the only thing (usually…) that isn’t appropriation, yet it’s the only component where people ask me where I’ve taken it from…
Obviously I fall into the steal everything and salt the earth camp…lol!!!!
Here it is from the Harper’s website (my linking itself being an appropriation…ha!):
No surprise that Lethem is a fan of appropriation–he’s basically a collector/fan in constitution. Whose recent post spoke about collecting? I don’t remember. But I think these impulses are related. And as such, not being a collector myself, I rarely have the urge to appropriate. Of course, as John points out below, the argument can quickly spiral into a purely theoretical space (e.g. all language is citation, etc.), but on a practical level, as a matter of experience or intention, I think it just comes down to disposition. I’d almost always prefer to write a sentence than quote one–even if it’s to the detriment of my work (meaning, even if a similar thing has been said before, and better.)
Done as a philosophical statement–something that points out the interdependency, I suppose, of individuals, or of language acts–I usually think, well, that point has been made. Done as an artistic/aesthetic decision, I take it on a case by case basis. I don’t have a radical moral system that prevents me from appreciating “stolen” work.
Shya – I tend to agree with you about that instinct. I use a lot of appropriation (in my own way) and much of my life is dictated by collecting (often abstractly – as I discussed in my post). The impulse is really one and the same.
Anything that deposes the hegemony of the “Author,” or, rather, illustrates, as per Roland Barthes (to, ironically, cite an “authority”), that the author never existed in the first place, is fine with me.
Speaking of Barthes, in his “The Death of the Author” (overall a criticism of relying on sides of the author’s identity to understand the work), after referring to Balzac’s Sarrasine, writes:
And then, after discussing the continuum of tribal societies where “narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose ‘performance’ may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his ‘genius,’” Barthes then positions the “author” as a modern construct, briefly glossing on its connection with capitalist ideology (something which, of course, needs further elucidation). Following this, he adds some further nails to the coffin:
While the tone of this may appear “negative,” Barthes argument leads to how the death of the author leads to the birth of the reader.
How do you do those cool quote things?
sure, i can dig the death of the author leads to the birth of the reader, but what if YOU are the author being deathed? does that make it any different? it’s one thing if i’m the one stealing, yeah, i love stealing, but if i’m the one being stolen, i don’t know… but then again, what is stealing & what is artistic “freedom”?
& let’s not forget wilde: talent borrows; genius steals.
I’m assuming you mean the formatting thing, not in the things I quote, although I’ll take the compliment both ways. For formatting, in your posting window, on the same line where you’ll find symbols to make the text bold or italicized, you’ll also find a curly quote which you can use to set off text with the nifty, larger quotation mark. There’s also symbols for linking, breaking your text into two parts, indenting, etc.
Lily, this post of yours is my best post here so far.
…For me, the challenge is always to justify the appropriation. If an author takes something just because it’s cool, then—hrm. I don’t think that makes the appropriator look all that good. (Why not just write something cool yourself?) Like, look at this:
..Rob Liefeld may have intended this page layout as an homage to Frank Miller, but he comes across looking like a hack. (The fact that Liefeld has a long history of doing this kind of thing doesn’t help his case.)
I tell my writing students all the time: don’t give me a paper that’s all quotes, because then I’ll just want to go read those papers, not yours. (I have this problem with filmmakers all the time: they quote from a better movie, and then I wish I were watching that movie instead.)
But if you can take another person’s writing (or whatever) and work it into yours—synthesizing something—then so much the better. That pushes everyone forward, I think.
Sadie Benning, for example, is great at doing this. Her use of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” in one of her early videos (“It Wasn’t Love,” I think) is pretty brilliant: “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more.” She completely subverts the song. Her video is simultaneously a work of musical criticism and an original expressive artwork—a synthesis built on an appropriation.
adam: you’re funny. this is why i like you.
but really, you make some great points, only what if i (the appropriator) fails to make something as “cool” as the original (the appropriated)? if my goal is simply to engage in conversation, isn’t that enough? & do you think appropriation (done “well” whatever that means) does push everyone forward?
i do it, yes, but i’m not sure i buy it yet. argh, i’m head’s in a knot now.
You, Lily, will always make something cool enough!
No, that’s something for others to judge. Some may think it’s cool, others may not. I’m not trying to evade the argument—but. I mean, I know some people who don’t like Kathy Acker; there’s no pleasing everyone.
A different example: Many people are simply nuts over the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. You’ll find extensive praise of them everywhere.
I’ve seen two of his films: “Uzak” (“Distant,” 2002) and “Iklimler” (“Climates,” 2006). I couldn’t stand either one of them. “Distant” struck me as a pale imitation of Tarkovsky, “Climates” a pale imitation of Bergman.
(I wrote a negative review of Distant here:
So—? No doubt Ceylan thinks that what he’s doing is cool enough. And many others agree. I disagree. I didn’t go to see his most recent movie. (My loss?)
Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get what he’s doing. Until then, I’d rather read Kathy Acker.
That Lethem essay is very good.
I’ve been doing a lot of appropriating the past few years. It’s a great way to get inside a text, to pursue a small theme, quirk, or elemental usage of a source piece.
I see appropriating as a critical analysis of a source text that is very direct–full of filter and point of view. You retain much of the original intent of the author without imposing a new vocabulary. You present your view of the source text (or maybe only one facet of it) without losing the essential character of the original voice.
I think the current paranoia around appropriation is very much a fear driven by a certain ethical system that has been built to excuse our participation in some of the more abusive aspects of our economic system. The small group who makes money off of “intellectual property” has waged a pretty effective campaign to make others believe that their right to make money in exactly the same way that they have been should continue in perpetuity, and that we have a moral imperative to defend their profit system.
I totally agree with you too, Lily. Anecdotally, some of my most experimental and ‘avant garde’ friends are those who are the most focused on property and ownership when it comes to their work. They’re the ones on witch hunts for people biting their lines and interested in “print runs” and controlled distribution of their work. It often exasperates me, but the good news is that the writing world is growing up. It’s amazing that any small press still insists on supporting the system of copyright (I think many simply do it passively), but more and more books I read make sure to fore-go copyright with more responsible licenses like those from Creative Commons.